Save the Last Dance for Me is the fourth Sam McCain novel—and my favorite simply because it is the first in the series I read—written by Ed Gorman. It was published by Carroll & Graf in 2002, and it is currently available as an eBook from Mysterious Press.
The year is 1960. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy are running for President, and Black River Falls finds itself home to a group of Ozark refugees. It is a fundamentalist mountain tribe seeking salvation at the fangs of rattlesnakes, and it has a penchant for distributing anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish pamphlets around town—a particular favorite, “The Jews Behind John F. Kennedy”. Sam is hired by the religious leader of the group, Reverend John Muldaur, to find (and presumably stop) the person who is trying to kill him.
It turns out Muldaur waited too long. He is poisoned at a snake handling ceremony, and Sam, who is a lawyer, a private eye, and an investigator for the county’s most prominent jurist, Judge Esme Ann Whitney, is tasked to solve the crime before Richard Nixon appears in Black River Falls on a campaign stop.
Save the Last Dance for Me is as good as medium-boiled detective fiction gets. It is a finely executed mixture of charm and despair, small town politics, and human frailty. Its pages are littered with hate, lust, and, on occasion, violence—not to mention a mild wry humor—but it is also sensitive and empathetic. Mr Gorman describes the hill-country people with pity, fear, and understanding—
“You can’t estimate the effects of poverty on generation after generation of people, that sadness and despair and madness that so quietly but irrevocably shapes their thoughts and taints their souls.”
“There’s nothing more frightening than a youngster who has been completely indoctrinated by his parents. He’s as soulless as a robot and as deadly as an assassin. You can’t reason with him because the ‘on’ switch in his brain doesn’t operate. His parents turned it off permanently long ago.”
It is also sharply plotted, and downright entertaining. Sam McCain is likable, and, more importantly, recognizable. He enjoys reading paperbacks, watching film, and the company of fresh, attractive, and intelligent women. The townspeople are odd without being outrageous—the incompetent but pitiable Chief of Police Cliff Sykes Jr., the smug rubber band flipping Judge Whitney, and the beatnik and sleaze writer Kenny Thibodeau are allowed to breath without dominating the tale.